Do any of the following describe you?
- You TiVo design and "realty reality" shows on HGTV.
You sometimes scan the real estate listings in the newspaper or online even though you're not looking to buy a new house.
You pore over home renovation magazines on a regular basis.
You have ever Zillowed your neighbors, your friends, or yourself.
You use Zillow as a verb.
I'm afraid I'm five for five on this list. According to Newsweek journalist Daniel McGinn, that means I have succumbed to the neurasthenia of our age: house lust.
In this light, engaging book, McGinn treks across America to examine our fascination with real estate. People have always felt a certain attachment to their bricks and mortar, but McGinn says that Americans have taken house lust to a whole new level in the last decade. One especially interesting chapter explores the rise of HGTV, the improbable network that builds hit shows by capitalizing on people's determination to keep up with the Joneses. We learn the interesting fact in the book that the flagship show House Hunters saw its ratings soar several years ago when the network tweaked the formulaic format just a bit: now, viewers can see exactly how much each prospective home costs. Apparently voyeurism isn't nearly as much fun if we can't imagine ourselves in each of these houses, and that involves the comparisons that are made possible by knowing the price the Joneses are about to pay. That tweak was so successful for HGTV that they added other shows that are precisely about home values, like What You Get for the Money and National Open House.
I was intrigued by the chapter on Americans' desire for new construction. Apparently, a large portion of Americans have a little fetish about not using bathtubs and toilets that other people have used before. They want new fixtures, new lighting, new carpet, new everything. I was reading that chapter in the bath--a Jazz Age clawfoot tub that has seen better days, to be precise--and thinking about how different I apparently am from most Americans. What I love most about my house is its history; bathtubs can be scrubbed and reglazed, but construction was just better back in the day. Walls were thicker, with studs closer together and a nice layer of real plaster to muffle sound. But even more than the sturdiness of our house, I love its history. This is a house that has been through a stock market crash, a Depression, several wars, the baby boom, the protest era, the "ME" decade, and even the unforgivable hair of the 80s, and it has stories to tell. But it seems that statistically, far fewer Americans want the stories than crave granite countertops and hangar-sized family rooms.
Not that I'm above coveting granite countertops. Another chapter explores Americans' drive to renovate and improve our homes--even now that values are tanking and it no longer makes as much financial sense. The book looks at the personal (and relational) cost of renovation, with new kinds of counselors practicing "renovation therapy" to help couples through the stress. (It's a little hard to weep for these folks.) And even in the age of Home Depot and the DIY ethic, the percentage of people who hire out the work has risen to 60%. Apparently we like watching DIY shows a whole lot more than we like actually doing to work of renovation. (After reading this chapter I said a big thank you to my husband, the ultimate DIYer who can fix anything, build anything, and kluge anything. I figure that he has saved us tens of thousands of dollars in appliance repair, home renovations, car triage, and general upkeep. I've learned a lot from him.)
What's nice about the book (in addition to the fact that McGinn is such a sharp writer) is that just when he gets critical and a little preachy, he confesses to his own house lust. While researching a chapter on rental properties, and hearing stories of how other middle-class people were receiving steady income from rental properties in other states, the Massachusetts-based McGinn plunked down about $60,000 to buy a run-down apartment building in Pocatello, Idaho, ignoring many red flags that the property had BAD IDEA written all over it. And in one of the book's most eye-opening sections, he takes a weekend realty class and emerges two days later a bona fide real estate agent. It seems that in most states, anyone who can drive through a neighborhood and talk on a cell phone at the same time can qualify to be a real estate agent. Whether they can actually make a living at it, however, is another story.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it to all fellow renovators, HGTV addicts, closet Zillowers, and house lusters everywhere. The first step is admitting that we have a problem.